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October 28, 2021

Sixers mailbag: Joel Embiid's knee, starting lineup issues, Tyrese Maxey's role and more

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Joel-Embiid-Sixers-76ers-Pistons_102921_USAT Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Joel Embiid has been playing through pain all season with mixed results.

The Sixers are a brutal collapse away from being 4-1 with a win over the preseason title favorites, but that collapse has loomed large in the psyche of fans, with the team mostly sputtering out of the gate without Ben Simmons. As Joel Embiid fights through knee pain and tries to steer the Sixers through this new reality, it felt appropriate to hit you with a mailbag filled with questions about the opening week of the season.

Five games in, unrest is approaching critical mass, so here's hoping I can calm a few of you down by answering your questions.

The team line is going to continue to be the same thing until they can no longer say otherwise — it's an issue Embiid can and is managing, though how well he's managing it is certainly up for debate. The surgery angle has barely been given a second thought internally, at least in any conversations I've had over the last few months, and a lot of the people (not referring to you, Jacob!) yelling about it don't seem to understand what the meniscus does or when/when not to have it worked on. If at any point I have something more to report, you guys will obviously know, but throwing every single thing you hear or think into print isn't how this job works, especially with murky health stuff.

As for the why component of all this, it's a totally fair question. There's absolutely no reason Embiid should be playing in, for example, games like the Sunday evening matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder, or the win over Detroit on Thursday. Needing to have Embiid on the floor to beat a team that isn't interested in winning games this season (at least at the organizational level) is a sad state of affairs.

There is a combination of factors at work here. Embiid has told you himself that he feels a certain level of responsibility to be on the floor, something he feels constantly but even more so with Ben Simmons unavailable for *gestures at that situation wildly*. Embiid denied it during his postgame presser following the Detroit win, but I do think he's also cognizant of the fact that he will constantly be dinged in individual awards races if he can't stay on the floor for a full season, which gives him some extra fuel to maybe push through the pain when he shouldn't. He is a prideful guy who loves to compete, and I'm not sure anyone in the organization has the power to stand up to him and tell him he needs to sit (which would be true for almost every organization in the league). They'll probably win out with voices of reason on occasion, but ultimately the players are going to decide when they do and don't play in this league. If you want to take issue with someone, take it up with the big man, because he's the guy who ultimately decides whether pain is enough to keep him out of a game.

They have to be smarter than they have been managing him, and that starts with Embiid himself. Here's my stance on the situation — I think he would be totally justified saying he needs a game, two games, however many games he needs off if that's what it takes to get right and be the Joel Embiid we all saw push for an MVP last season. But if he's willingly going out there and playing through issues, he's responsible for the results of that decision, good or bad. I have respect for his willingness to battle through knocks, it just does not mean we excuse him if he performs poorly, as he did in New York on Tuesday night. Heavy is the hand that signs the supermax contract.

It is way, way too early to be drawing conclusions on any lineup, let alone a lineup that has 4/5 pieces from a group that propelled this team to a No. 1 seed last season. But there's a pretty obvious problem that everyone can see — Tyrese Maxey has not been a great fit with the starting group, and until/unless he makes a considerable leap forward, he's going to be better served as a reserve player. 

For all of Simmons' playoff warts, he has been an ultra-productive player for them in the regular season and his contributions are varied to a point that makes them tough to replace. You could shore up the defense by putting someone like Matisse Thybulle on the floor, but you're suffering in a big way on the offensive end. Maxey gives you some off-the-dribble juice, but he's a gunshy shooter and a potential target on the defensive end. Shake Milton seems likely to step into the starting lineup soon, which should aid the Sixers in their quest to build an offensive identity around Embiid. But even though I think that's the "best" option from a list of subpar paths, it won't do anything to shore up the defense, which is the bigger problem at the moment.

As I wrote following the Knicks game, Embiid is also going to have to do some things he doesn't love to do in order to make life easier for his teammates. Committing to being a more active screener in the pick-and-roll would make a difference for this group, though it's fair to point out that they might have one guy on the roster who is even semi-impactful as a pick-and-roll player. There are things Rivers can do on the coaching side, mostly in a variety of action and offense, that might be able to at least keep defenses off balance and steer the Sixers out of rocky stretches. That said, it would require practice work and prep time to start to introduce more concepts, and you don't get a lot of that once the season begins.

Some of this is going to sort itself out as the season goes on — I would bet they'll improve on defense with some better opponent shooting luck. But I don't think anyone should expect the top group to be a net rating champion this year, and they'll probably be more reliant on bench production than ever until/unless they figure the Simmons situation out.

I have gone back and forth on this a couple of times but ultimately I think "mixed" will be the best way to describe the initial reaction. Judging by the number of anti-Simmons chants so far this season and preseason, there will definitely be a vocal group of fans who want to show up and let their voices be heard. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who show up to games and just want to see their team win, not necessarily dug into a philosophical team-building debate before and after every Sixers game.

Let's say, for example, you're a parent who just so happens to be taking your young child to a game for the first time the night Simmons returns. Are you really going to sit/stand there and lay into the dude, or are you going to hope he helps create a memory that will spark a bond for you and your kid? If someone is on a date, are you going to be the maniac cursing a stranger out or explaining to your less-invested partner why a lot of people are booing? The answers will vary person to person, but not everybody showing up to a game arrives with blood lust. 

And that's before the mental health angle was thrown into all of this. There are skeptics on the sincerity there, given the order of operations in this circus, but ultimately I think people (rightfully) skew on the side of caution with this stuff. Fans ultimately want to support people who can admit when they need help, in whatever form that help comes in, and if Simmons returns from his hiatus ready to turn over a new leaf, I would honestly be shocked if people around here don't give him a chance. He has to actually prove willing to do that, of course.

There are plenty of differences between what the Thunder are doing and what the Sixers are doing, and you can decide on the meaning of those differences for yourself. A few to keep in mind:

  1. Oklahoma City is not a market that matters in the same way Philadelphia does, with all due respect to the good people of Oklahoma. They are a team with a smaller average imprint, a much smaller local media market (and thus, contributor to the revenue pie) and an easy franchise to have on the backburner when it comes down to it.
  2. Sam Presti is doing this having already accomplished a lot as an executive, namely drafting three first-ballot Hall of Famers at the start of the Thunder's run in OKC and trying to compete with that group, tinkering as it fell apart for various reasons, and landing on this path once it was no longer tenable to try to compete in the short-term.
  3. To this point, Presti has not done the equivalent of drafting three straight centers with top-10 picks. Ostensibly, the Thunder are trying to build a team in which the major pieces have a realistic case to play on the floor together. By my recollection, a lot more people (including some loud dissenters in the years that followed) were on board in that first year under Hinkie, even if "Winless for Wiggins" turned out to be focusing on the wrong prospect. There is some irony, of course, that public opinion began to turn after the first tank season led to drafting a second center in 2014, because that player (Joel Embiid) ended up being the best of the bunch by far.

Mind you, it's not like Presti himself was against what the Sixers were doing, or at least their right to do it. He was a pretty constant ally of Hinkie's when anti-tanking measures were up for discussion/voting at the league level, perhaps with the knowledge that he might have to go on this path himself someday. 

I would go so far as to say even "borderline All Star" isn't what Morey is shooting for. Realistic or not, they want exactly what Morey has said publicly and insisted privately that they're after — an impact player who maintains or improves their title odds. He's not a hard executive to read, really. If he doesn't feel like a move is bringing his team closer to a title, he doesn't want to do it.

It's not easy to figure out where the cutoff is. The moonshot deals, a la Damian Lillard, don't seem realistic right now. Is there an All-Star level player who could become available slightly below Lillard's caliber that would make them meaningfully better? Scanning through the 2021 All-Star list, there are probably at least 10 guys whose teams would hang up the phone if the Sixers offered to swap Simmons for them (the Giannis, Durant, LeBron types of the world). There are a number of guys who don't fit what Philly needs whatsoever (e.g. Sabonis, Vucevic, Gobert), players who seem unlikely to get swapped for Simmons at this point despite previous rumors (Beal, LaVine), and so on down the line. 

Once you get past the actual, certified All-Stars, you run into players the Sixers have already indicated in some way that they're not after. CJ McCollum, for example, is a better player than I think he's given credit for and a terrific offensive fit in Philly. But that hasn't mattered to the Sixers, who are after his better backcourt partner. They never registered much interest in Malcolm Brogdon prior to Indiana locking him up with an extension, either. They want a star, or they want Simmons back. Realistic or not, that's where they stand.

(To the first part of the question — I think they could be convinced to do a multiple parts deal if it gave them some future upside. If someone like Tyrese Haliburton headlined a deal that also brought back multiple helpful role players, the upside and potential cap savings there might be enough to get it over the line if no readymade star deal emerges. But I don't think that's their preference, certainly.)

I still think the Sixers are slightly above the play-in pack and am not going to go back on my prediction for their season that I gave earlier this month, but they are testing my faith and patience for sure. Nothing has felt easy for this group, and if the Simmons situation drags on, they will have to string together wins against much stiffer competition. Time will tell, I guess. The East is looking mighty tough.

One thing that's pretty remarkable — Rivers has only been here for a year and pushed the team to their first No. 1 seed in 20 years, and I don't think I know a single fan of the team who is an outright supporter or defender of Rivers. That's a pretty remarkable thing for a guy who has been around as long as Rivers and had early success the way Rivers did, but it does show you the microscope coaches are under here and the weight of playoff collapses he has overseen.

That doesn't mean Rivers is on or even close to the hot seat, but it's something to keep in mind. There's been no word of any friction between Rivers and Morey (or other staffers for that matter) even though the order of hirings was backward from the norm, and ultimately the question is always whether firing a coach is going to lead to a better coach being put in place. I don't think Rivers is as bad as his worst critics suggest, but I also didn't view him as the magic bullet solution when he was hired in the first place. 

I was honestly shocked I didn't get more non-hoops questions, given how much angst there was over the Knicks loss. Yes, I have indeed played (and beaten!) the new Metroid, and it is a doozy. It's one of the harder games in a series that was never a true walk in the park, a pretty major leap forward in the story if you care about such things in a Metroid game, and everything you would want in a Metroidvania, if those sort of games are your thing. I'm relatively obsessed with those, so it scratched the itch for me.

But I need a new Metroid Prime game in the worst way. Ditto for Hollow Knight 2. Everything else before those games drop is just a substitute.

I don't think Embiid is obsessed with it, but he definitely has to find a way to play unselfishly without losing what makes him special on the offensive end. He has made huge strides in terms of the passes he can make and how often he makes them, but if there's a remaining complaint about his playmaking, it's that it can be a little too deliberate. You don't see a lot of snap reads and on-the-fly adjustments from the big guy, who tends to commit to scoring or playmaking wholeheartedly on a given play.

Frankly, I think a commitment to playmaking is something that has been long overdue for Embiid. If the Sixers are going to try to contend with Embiid as the best player, he needs to be able to use the pressure he generates to create open looks for teammates, or else the ability to draw double teams is not actually beneficial for the Sixers. Good offense, especially good playoff offense, is about finding the paths of least resistance and exploiting them repeatedly. For a lot of teams, that means hunting small and/or incapable defenders with your best ballhandlers. For the Sixers, that's likely going to mean Embiid either beating one-on-one matchups or sucking attention toward him in the paint and then finding whoever becomes open as a result. To be a title-winning leader, he has to be the 30-point scorer and the point center, unless they make a roster change that takes some of that pressure off of his shoulders. Balance is key.

Now that Shake Milton is back in the lineup, the road ahead has become a little bit clearer. Doc Rivers didn't outright say Maxey was going to move to the bench, but he noted before Thursday's win over Detroit that the Sixers would likely be more flexible with their starters game-to-game, tinkering with things dependent on the matchup. And given that the other four starters are holdovers from last year's ultra-successful starting five, there's a clear indicator of who is on the (potential) chopping block.

Putting Maxey with a group where he'll have more shot-creating opportunities better suits his skill set, compared to what he does with the starters, which is a lot of spacing the floor for Joel Embiid. Right now, teams are mostly ignoring him on the perimeter, and as all of you reading this know, that's something the Sixers want to avoid when the big guy is posting up.

However, Thursday's game against Detroit showed you what it might look like if Maxey shows a level of assertiveness befitting a starting point guard. It's not easy for a second-year guard to wave off guys like Embiid and Tobias Harris to call his own number, and finding the mental wherewithal to do so is as important to his development as his outside touch. The only way for him to find his voice and place amongst the starters is to let him play with them, so more reps and growing pains might be the prudent long-term move. All that really matters to me is that Maxey gets enough minutes, because he's a critical part of the path forward until/unless they rectify the Simmons situation.

This is heavily dependent on what exactly the Sixers are getting back in a hypothetical Simmons trade. To tie this into the above point on Maxey, the second-year guard becomes a lot more expendable if you're able to bring back someone like, say, Damian Lillard, who is going to eat the lion's share of point guard minutes. And given the defensive drop-off that would be assumed in that swap, Thybulle becomes an even more critical piece for this team, even if it's still only in a reserve role for now.

That being said, if including Thybulle is the difference between getting a true impact player and not in a Simmons trade, you send him on the first flight out of Philadelphia. He's a role player, admittedly a very talented and (at least at times) impactful role player, but you can find more of those. Getting stars is the hard part, and Morey will do whatever is necessary to try to get the right ones around Embiid in an attempt to win a title. 

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